Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Why you can't afford to ignore the trend towards bicycle friendly business districts.

What do Austin, San Franscisco, Portland, Chicago and Washington D.C. have in common? Why, an expanding network of bike lanes, of course! Expanding the transportation options and improving access to commercial districts is gaining steam, and here at the Commercial District Advisor we are generally pleased with this trend. Creating and maintaining a network of bike infrastructure is one critically important way to help local businesses. But the issue is not always so clear cut in some places, and implementing interventions that may change the business environment for long standing businesses needs to be managed carefully. For many businesses whose customers historically arrive by car, the lack of immediately accessible and visible car parking, not to mention the challenges of managing deliveries when a bike lane takes us the space immediately in front of a store, are a legitimate concerns for some businesses. If  existing customers find it less convenient to patronize a store, and the business has not yet started attracting new customers, there will be inevitable growing pains. 

The fight in New York's Upper West side, where a 6' protected bike lane was installed after facing resistance from the local Community Board, is indicative of what happens in many cities. The owner of a local lingerie shop, in business for 17 years, said "It's one more piece of space it's taking up, people are not riding their bikes to go shopping." ("Business Owners Dish on Columbus Ave Bike Lanes: From 'Love it' to 'It Sucks'", West Side Rag, 1/8/13). A number of studies by bike advocacy groups suggest otherwise. They have found that local businesses do in fact benefit from customers who arrive on bike, but it can take a little while to change shopping habits. For some businesses whose offerings and clientele include older, long-time residents, the changes can be a little tougher to manage. In fact, much of the argument on the Upper West side was split by an age demographic. A blogger for Streetsblog who was covering the Community Board debate wrote "I was at this meeting, and was struck by the age divide: older people against a bike lane...and younger people in favor." But as the blogger noted, the changes have also created a safer pedestrian environment, which benefits those who do not ride bikes as well. 

Perhaps most significantly for our purposes, and the reason why on the whole bike lanes are great for commercial districts, is because they are just plain good for business. A recent study issued on bike lanes found that "in growing urban communities, protected bike lane networks encourage more people to ride bikes for everyday trips. And when people use bikes for errands, they're the ideal kind of retail customers: regulars. They stop by often and spend as much or more per month as people who arrive in cars." (For the full report, click here: "Protected Bike Lanes Mean Business: How 21st Century Transportation Networks Help New Urban Economies Boom"). Business owners sometimes express concern that bike riders don't spend as much per shopping trip, but studies show that they spend more total and return more frequently than the customer who arrives by car. In San Francisco, the study found that bike lanes and wider sidewalks on Valencia Street improved business for 66% of businesses. 4% indicated it hurt sales. 
From: Protected Bike Lanes Mean Business

One very important and less mentioned benefit of bike lanes and bike infrastructure (and one that we trumpet quite regularly) is the ability to draw more customers from a slightly larger trade area. This is our primary reason for supporting this effort. Enlarging a district's primary trade area - the geographic area from which 60- 80% of a district's customers come from - is a great strategy for helping businesses grow sales. In walkable urban communities, it is not uncommon for someone to walk 10-minutes, or about 1/2 mile at a leisurely pace, to patronize a local business. A 10-minute bike ride on the other hand pulls people from a 1.5 radius (again, assuming a leisurely pace). We ran the numbers for the neighborhood surrounding our office here in Jackson Heights, Queens and the results were astounding. The difference in trade area was the difference between 67,789 potential customers and 366,564 potential customers. Wow. 

Source: ESRI, Census 2010. Based on a radius drawn from 78-27 37th Avenue, Jackson Heights, NY
So while change can be a difficult pill to swallow from some businesses, the implications of installing and maintaining a robust bike infrastructure cannot and should not be overlooked as a vital tool in the commercial district managers toolbox. 

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